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On 50th anniversary of Boston Pride, transgender activists return to resistance

A Unity flag was raised at the State House.
A Unity flag was raised at the State House.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Fifty years after the Boston Pride parade was launched in response to police harassment and brutality against gay patrons at the Stonewall Inn in New York, this year’s commemorative event is being overhauled by Black and transgender activists who say organizers have grown too cozy with police and unresponsive to their needs.

Saturday was intended to mark the triumphant half-century celebration of an event that, over the years, had morphed from a defiant and daring declaration of sexual orientation into Boston’s single largest annual parade, a colorful and family-friendly event that attracts up to 1 million people and a slew of corporate sponsors. But the coronavirus pandemic had already forced the cancellation of the parade and shifted many of the celebration’s other events online when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited worldwide protests against systemic discrimination.

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Now, Saturday’s scrapped parade has been replaced with plans for an afternoon vigil staged by activists who rejected a Boston Pride statement on the protests as too tepid and are intent on “taking back our pride.” The Trans Resistance Vigil and March starts at 3 p.m. at Franklin Park Playstead and harkens back to the movement’s roots at Stonewall, where Black transgender women were among the leaders of the standoff against police.

“We’re reminding people that you have the power that you have when it comes to pride because of Black trans and nonbinary individuals who decided to start a riot against police brutality,” said Athena Vaughn, a lead organizer. “That power was given to you by trans people of color. Now is the time we’re taking our power back and steering it in the direction it should go because the people in power have not done what they were supposed to do with that power.”

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Athena Vaughn spoke in front of the Massachusetts State House after a new transgender flag was raised to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pride parade.
Athena Vaughn spoke in front of the Massachusetts State House after a new transgender flag was raised to honor the 50th anniversary of the Pride parade. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

In this tumultuous moment, Boston Pride’s all-volunteer board is reacting not only by listening and inviting more input. Organizers have also hired a diversity consultant and supported the vigil by donating tents, bullhorns, walkie-talkies, first aid kits, water, snacks, and a sign language interpreter.

“As Boston Pride, we want to do better,” said board president Linda DeMarco, who promised a concerted effort to listen to the community and attract new diversity. She said she wants to make sure that she has “people of color, working with us side by side.”

The dispute is indicative of how Black and marginalized activists are pushing established institutions for more demonstrable action, saying they feel overlooked and unheard even within seemingly inclusive organizations that purport to support and promote them.

Until now, they noted, Pride organizers had resisted a suggestion to replace their rainbow flag with an updated “Unity” version that incorporates black and brown stripes and the colors of the transgender flag. Boston Pride stuck with the familiar rainbow flag in the City Hall flag-raising the group filmed to post online. But after the tumult, they raised a Unity flag at City Hall. And on Friday, activists including Vaughn staged a do-over at the State House, where leading politicians joined in a ceremony with the more inclusive flag.

Pride’s organizing board has six members, none of them Black, though two are Latino and one is transgender.

The larger Pride committee is more diverse but has no decision-making power, and some members say they feel unheard and diminished by the board. Indeed, a communications team had drafted a more forceful statement expressing allegiance with “Black and brown people unjustly killed by police violence,” using the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The Pride board omitted the hashtag and replaced references to “police violence,” instead citing “Black and brown people unjustly killed by brutal acts committed by people wearing police badges and uniforms,” and “inhuman acts of violence committed by some members of the law enforcement community throughout the decades.”

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After fielding blowback, Pride organizers apologized, saying unequivocally, “We stand together with the Black and brown community,” and adopting the hashtag, #Black Lives Matter. They also canceled some additional online events this week, in solidarity with the protests, and encouraged support for the nonprofit the vigil will benefit, the Transgender Emergency Fund, which supports low-income and homeless transgender individuals. Activists note that Black trans women in particular face daunting rates of violence, yet haven’t been the focus of either the Black Lives Matter or the LGBTQ movements.

“People came out for George Floyd and Trayvon [Martin] and all the Black men who have been murdered, but there’s never been a hue and cry to uplift and to make known the historical fact that Black transgender people, especially women, have also been murdered and killed by the police,” said Judah Dorrington, a past president of both the Pride committee and Black Pride New England.

Boston’s first Pride event, in 1970, was held the year after the Stonewall uprising, at which patrons of a gay bar resisted a police raid and waged a days-long standoff. Billed as a “Dialogue with a Straight World,” Boston’s first event drew only about 30 people, all but two of whom were openly gay, recalled organizer John Kyper.

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“I don’t know how much dialogue there was,” Kyper acknowledged.

Marchers carried balloons during Boston's first official Pride March on June 26, 1971.
Marchers carried balloons during Boston's first official Pride March on June 26, 1971. The History Project

By 1971, Pride took the form of a sidewalk parade, with about 200 joining a march from the Jacques bar in Bay Village to Boston Police headquarters, the State House, and a church, issuing demands at each stop along the way.

Proud as they were though, many marchers were still afraid to be seen and identified in the early years: Some literally wore bags over their heads.

“Back then it was dangerous — certainly to your job and your personal relationships, maybe even physically, to be identified as gay or lesbian,” said former representative Barney Frank, who came out in 1987.

Friends marched during the gay pride parade in Boston in 1972.
Friends marched during the gay pride parade in Boston in 1972.George Rizer/Globe Staff

“The real importance of the parades came in the mid-70s, into the ’80s,” Frank said, pointing to the poignancy of the AIDS crisis. “It was important to show that there were a lot of gay people, that we weren’t ashamed.”

As awareness grew, though, gay advocates fought for equal rights by emphasizing their commonalities with straight allies.

“The LGBT community, as it was striving to win elementary rights, did what most oppressed populations do — emphasized assimilation as the pathway to equality,” said Arline Isaacson, who championed the state’s 1989 gay civil rights law and the fight for same-sex marriage, which was legalized in 2004. “It was mainstreaming itself as much as possible in order to prove that it deserved equality. It was emphasizing being just like you.

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“On the one hand, it was effective in winning certain legislative and policy victories, but on the downside, it erased large portions of our community,” added Isaacson, who is cochair of the Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Political Caucus.

The Boston Pride parade marched down Charles Street in Boston on June 20, 1981.
The Boston Pride parade marched down Charles Street in Boston on June 20, 1981. Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff

By the 1980s and 1990s, under the leadership of LGBTQ champion Mayor Thomas M. Menino, Pride parades became so mainstream that some of the most marginalized LGBTQ people now felt like the ones left out.

“It’s basically morphed into ... a big party,” said Michelle Tat, a transgender Asian-American. “Yes, we should be celebrating our identities, for sure. But we can’t lose sight about the origins of what pride was — as an action against law enforcement against oppressed people.”

In recent years, some LGBTQ activists staged mini-protests at the parade, objecting to the commercialization of the event and the participation of police, who march as well as standing by for public safety.

And as unrest spread over the recent killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, activists pressed Boston Pride to express more visceral outrage and a deeper allegiance with other people on the margins.

“None of those people are queer that we know of; however, their murders are representative of systemic racism in this country,” Tat said. “And Pride’s lukewarm messaging ... is not enough. It really isn’t enough.”

Dorrington said the mostly volunteer Pride organization is by no means unique but is also not immune from the problems seen in society at large.

“Now is the time when transgender people, especially trans people of color, are making their voice heard that we will no longer tolerate this in our society,” Dorrington added. “It’s been 51 years and we’re still dealing with the same things we dealt with when Stonewall occurred."


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.